Pop Art is most commonly associated with New York artists of the 1960s, particularly icons such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. In fact, Andy Warhol went so far as to describe Pop Art as a kind of “embodiment of the American Dream”. However, the movement actually originated in Britain after the Second World War, before very quickly moving across the Atlantic to where it became the cultural phenomenon that is so instantly recognizable today. So what was Pop Art, and why did it matter so much?
The Beginning of Pop Art
Unsurprisingly, Pop Art simply meant art that was popular. It tied together the growing consumerist imagery of the time with fine art. Pop Art signalled an optimism and almost naïve decadence in both Britain and America that was in stark contrast to the post-war austerity of the 1940s and early 1950s that many of the leading lights of the Pop Art movement were raised with.
It is often said that the first work of Pop Art was produced by British artist Richard Hamilton, with his iconic “Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Home So Different and So Appealing?” This 1956 work is rich in commercial imagery and advertising slogans, but also saturated with the quirky humour which helped Pop Art become a bridge between the vibrant throwaway culture of commercialism and the highly theoretical world of Fine Art.
It wasn’t always easy for the young, rebellious pop artists to be taken seriously, particularly in the art establishments of the time. World-renowned British artist David Hockney studied at the Royal College of Art between 1959 and 1962, but was initially told he would not be able to graduate. He created one of his famous pieces, “The Diploma,” in protest, eventually becoming one of the most renowned British artists of the 20th century, winning numerous awards and accolades.
Pop Art Reaches America
But it was really in America, particularly in New York during the advertisement-rich era of the 1960s, that the Pop Art movement really found its key players and defining characteristics. Here, young artists openly embraced identifiable imagery and contemporary themes from advertising and mass-market consumerism, applying them to sculptures, paintings, videos and installations. Thus they began to blur the boundaries between “high” art, which so often focused on mythological imagery and traditional media, and “low” culture, which until that turning point had been dismissed as worthless and throwaway. The irony perhaps is that Pop Art, which was easily dismissed as being disposable and thoughtless, eventually stimulated considerable academic debate on the role of art in contemporary society. Pop artists may have created their work without commentary or judgment of the advertising trends they were mirroring, but art historians and social analysts have found no shortage of material to discuss the role and rationale of Pop Art at the time.
It should not be surprising that the most famous of all pop artists, Andy Warhol, began his career as a commercial illustrator after graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Pictorial Design in 1949. Shortly after completing his studies, Warhol, the son of Eastern European immigrants, moved to New York City and rapidly became a very successful illustrator, before touring the world in 1956. This was all part of the American Dream that Warhol believed in so much and often described Pop Art as bringing it to life. Afterwards, Warhol’s focus became on painting, and he debuted some of his most famous works, including his iconic soup cans, in the early 1960s. From here on, he began experimenting with the celebrity portraits that would bring him so much fame and that have characterized Pop Art for more than half a century.
Pop Art was too iconic and too rooted in the culture of the 1950s to simply vanish. It was and still is absorbed into the language of contemporary art and design. Mark Ashkenazi’s “Tear of a Princess” focuses on comic book icon Wonder Woman in a clear nod to Roy Lichtenstein’s expressive and emotionally charged Pop Art female portraits. Radic Zelko’s subdued but beautiful portrait of Audrey Hepburn is just as evocative of Andy Warhol whilst retaining a subtle and contemporary twist. And Juan Sly’s gorgeously cute “Get the Hirst Bug” is a quirky, charming and entertaining addition to contemporary popular culture in a familiar style.
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